Ridley Scott’s Barry Lyndon

Film Review of Napoleon. Picture: ON FILE


Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby

Rated MA15+


Directed by Ridley Scott, Napoleon is a superbly-crafted historical drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French and one of history’s great military leaders.

Moving fluidly between gravitas and gormlessness, Phoenix plays Napoleon as a master strategist but also an arrogant, naïve man. Vanessa Kirby is magnetic as Napoleon’s wife Josephine, and the film delves deep into her and Napoleon’s fractured but loving relationship.

Napoleon is a slow but engrossing film full of dry wit. As with Killers of the Flower Moon, I like this kind of slow, dense, immersive pacing, but some viewers may find it tedious or uneventful (and certain inaccuracies, such as Napoleon blasting the Egyptian Pyramids with cannons, may irk historical purists).

The harrowing, phenomenally-staged battle sequences, and three in particular, underpin Napoleon’s character arc. The 1793 siege of Toulon establishes Napoleon’s cunning, ambition and ego; the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz – the film’s brutal icy lake centrepiece – is a victory at the height of Napoleon’s power; the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, with Napoleon now a petty usurper, sees his judgment fail and luck run out as the situation disintegrates.

Napoleon has strong thematic and stylistic parallels with Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 classic Barry Lyndon. Both films follow the rise and catastrophic fall of a charismatic figure in a time of war (and they share similar fates of comfortable exile). Like Barry Lyndon, Napoleon has several beautiful scenes of gossip and intrigue lit with fireplaces or candlelight, but unlike the bright, crisp Barry Lyndon, Napoleon has a very muted colour palette.

An intimate character study with tremendous battle sequences, Napoleon is playing in most Victorian cinemas.

– Seth Lukas Hynes